Computer Code on the farm

Farmers have always found creative ways to keep farm machinery running. Now they have added computer programs to their tool box along with the haywire.


Manitoba farmer Matt Reimer has come up with a creative solution to an old problem. It used to be that while combining, a driver would sit in a tractor waiting to unload the combine. Not only was it a boring job –he spent most of his time reading a book– it was a waste of labour. So Reimer built a robotic tractor he created himself from open source components. Now he can remotely call the driverless tractor to pull up alongside the combine and unload the hopper. The driver can be gainfully employed with the many other tasks at harvest time.

Manufacturers of farm machinery are not always cooperative, as Saskatchewan farmer Chris Herrnbock found out when he tried to fix the computer programs that run his machinery. The maker of his farm machinery contends that, while Herrnbock may own his combine, he only has a licence for the operating program. John Deere claims they need to protect their intellectual property.

Herrnbock understands that. He gets why Microsoft might want to protect their software by licensing the code that runs their computers. “If a computer crashes, your Word presentation might delayed,” he told CBC Radio’s Spark, “but when my half million dollar combine crashes, you lose $60,000 a day in grain not harvested.” That grain represents a year’s work lying in the field losing value.

Herrnbock has no intention of stealing John Deere’s programs, he just wants to have access to the analytics that would fix them. John Deere denies him even that.

“It’s hard for me to stomach,” says Herrnbock. Like farmers in the past who learned to make machinery work through their own ingenuity, he has learned to diagnose computer code; like when the digital monitoring system on his weed sprayer quit, he just “home-brewed” a replacement. Herrnbock doesn’t pretend to be a computer programmer any more than he claims to a licensed mechanic.

“I don’t want to reprogram the auto-steer guidance system; I don’t need access to the source code for that.” He just wants access to the computer analytics so he can keep his machinery running.

John Deere risks getting a black eye with farmers, Herrnbock warns. There are other makers of farm equipment that don’t deny access to computer code. AGCO Corp. makes a number of other brands of farm machinery including Massey Ferguson.

Last month, AGCO announced that they were opening access to their computer code:  “AgCommand Application Programming Interface now is open to approved third-party developers and service providers of farming applications, such as management dashboards and mobile apps. This new capability will enable AGCO customers to access their machine data through their other farm and fleet management tools.”

The U.S. Copyright office has recently ruled in favour of farmers to the dismay of equipment manufacturers such as John Deere, permitting “the authorized owner of the vehicle to allow the diagnosis, repair or lawful modification of a vehicle function.” No word yet on the impact for Canadian farmers.